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    For the tragic reality is that Israel cannot be at peace both with the Palestinians and with itself.
           -Peter Rodgers, The Prison of Memory

On the morning of November 2, 2017--the central conceit of the story is that Israel and the Palestinians have previously negotiated a peace deal which has produced a state of Palestine--Rabbi Yoshua Epstein and his followers in the Guardians of the Eternal Land seize control of Kol Yisrael--the Israeli government's media broadcasting center. The Rabbi's message, which comes on the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration :

    From 1st January, 2018, the year in which we commemorate the seventieth anniversary of Israel
    reborn, the Palestinian State will cease to exist.  That cruel and unjust agreement which brought it
    into being will have no further life.  The Palestinian State and the agreement have no part in God's
    plan.  For as long as they exist Israel cannot be physically whole, it cannot be spiritually complete,
    it cannot be redeemed.  Surely no self-respecting Israeli can do anything but rejoice at the end of
    the false division between State and Land, a division which shames and endangers us all.

This seizure and the standoff that follows precipitates a crisis which draws in the Prime Minister of Israel, Eyal Berkovich, and his advisors and the President of Palestine, Amir Husseini, and his and has particularly dire ramifications for the Jewish settlement at Shillo, which is scheduled to be ceded to Palestinian control in the new year.  Everyone is forced to make difficult decisions as the situation continues and tensions rise, building towards a climax that no one could have foreseen.

Australian author Peter Rodgers presents enough action and drama here to satisfy anyone looking for a good thriller, but the former Ambassador to Israel has broader purposes in mind too.  By providing each of his characters with a detailed personal history, he explores the ways that past tragedies have shaped the attitudes of those in both countries, for better and for worse.  Though they necessarily become symbols for certain attitudes and prejudices, their backgrounds make their beliefs and ideologies more understandable to the reader, who will agree with some and disagree with others, but is forced to reckon with all.  The author is then able to use the interplay between these characters, and the religious and political positions they represent, to examine the intractable issues which have proven so daunting in trying to find a way for modern Jews and Muslims to live peaceably in the lands of the old British protectorate of Palestine.

The differences between Palestinians and Israelis are well rehearsed these days--just pick up a newspaper and there's likely to be a story about the Middle East peace process--and while Mr. Rodgers does not slight these differences, he devotes special attention to the differences which specifically divide the Jews of Israel.  The divide is illustrated as the Prime Minister, who we would consider a moderate in the mold of Rabin or Barak, ruminates :

    ...his mind fixed on the thought that has long tormented him.  That as Israel's struggle of Jew versus
    Arab receded, a struggle fed by whims of history, birth and belief, another struggle would
    crystallise.  More dangerous perhaps, certainly more insidious, a contest which pitted Israeli against
    Israeli.  Not the fractious, argumentative energy of everyday life that sometimes gave the
    impression that discussion of the weather might lead to homicide.  But the fault line that splintered
    Israel and cast into such sharp relief the mismatch between those whose first loyalty was to the State
    and those whose only loyalty was to the Land.  Could the two ever be reconciled ?  Statehood
    meant compromise, accepting less than the absolute.  For those who clung to the memory of the
    Bible this was a perversion of God's will.

It is this bifurcation, between those who believe in the State of Israel and those who believe in the Land of Israel, that animates the novel and makes it really interesting reading.

In a fundamental sense the secularists, supporters of the State, believe in the idea of Israel--as a political construct in which Jews will predominate.  The religious believe that Israel is a place--the land bequeathed to Jews by God.  The conflict naturally arises because if Israel is only an idea then it matters not where it is or what form it takes, but if Israel is a divinely ordained place, then it's borders are not a fit subject for mortal negotiation.

Though he does not raise the point directly, the ultimate question faced by Israel is whether the idea makes any sense without the place.  There is no other group (with the notable exception of the Catholics and Vatican City) for whom we countenance the concept of a religiously based homeland, nor any for whom the very concept of nationhood is so explicitly based in religiosity.  America too is based on an idea, that of democracy, and should that idea fail, America as we understand it will cease to exist.  Significantly, this is the case because the nation proceeds from a founding diocument, in thios case the Constitution.  Israel too proceeds from a document, in that case the Old Testament.  Will Israel, properly understood, also cease to exist if it's people cease to observe Judaism ? or if it's Jewish population becomes a minority within its borders (a very real possibility until the fall of the Soviet Union brought an enormous influx of Eastern European Jews, who, in addition to their raw numbers, have the added benefit of reproducing at much higher rates than the native Israeli population.)  If the Judaism of the Bible is not central to the existence of Israel, why not just call the whole geographic region Palestine and settle the differences between "Israelis" and "Palestinians" in elections ? These are the types of uncomfortable questions that seldom get aired because of the directness with which they turn the focus on the Jewishness of Israel, but they are implicated by this story, even if indirectly.

The author does a terrific job of presenting many complex, though-provoking issues and succeeds in playing them down the middle.  By being fair to all of the various viewpoints, and giving them sympathetic human faces, he forces us to confront them honestly, free from the inflammatory rhetoric and emotional appeals which usually accompany them.  Without sacrificing the dynamics of the thriller, he offers a refreshing opportunity to reconsider one of the last seemingly insoluble conflicts in world affairs.  I don't know that it will change any minds, but if it gets you thinking, perhaps that's enough to ask.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -ESSAY : Israeli culture goes down under (Mark Schulman, Jerusalem Post)
    -ESSAY : EAST TIMOR : HOW IT HAPPENED (H.W. Arndt)
    -INTERVIEW : An interview with Natan Sharansky : MAN ON THE MOVE (Augustine Zycher, Australia-Israel Review)

GENERAL :
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "middle east"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "balfour declaration"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "palestine"
       -REVIEW : of Brother Against Brother: Violence and Extremism in Israeli Politics from Altalena to the Rabin Assassination  by Ehud Sprinzak (Rael Jean Isaac, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of One Palestine by Tom Segev  (Anita Shapira, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British mandate Tom Segev (Philip Ziegler, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY : Palestinians under Siege (Edward Said, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of THE JEWISH STATE The Struggle for Israel's Soul. By Yoram  Hazony(Walter Reich, NY Times Book Review)

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